PTSD. Isn’t that about people who served in the military and heard bombs going off or killed someone in battle? Absolutely. But it could also be because someone was in a car wreck, a natural disaster, was subjected to their parents fighting from a young age or were physically abused. And that’s just the beginning of the list!

Today is National PTSD Awareness Day and while we know dogs are lifesavers for those suffering from PTSD and can genuinely make a difference in the quality of their lives, we also know that dogs themselves can have PTSD.

Like humans, dogs acquire PTSD when exposed to some kind of trauma including but not limited to:

  • Being abandoned to live in the wild
  • A loss through death, moving or abandonment
  • Physical or emotional abuse
  • Bad interactions with other animals (dog fighting)
  • A serious accident
  • A natural disaster, like a tornado or flooding
  • Military combat

We hear more about anxiety in dogs than we do PTSD. Rescue dogs, those who have been bred, pretty much any dog from puppy through adulthood can have an anxiety disorder. Typically signs of anxiety, including separation anxiety, and or PTSD can include things from this list.

  • Peeing or pooping in the house
  • Howling, barking, or whining
  • Destructive behavior

A dog who has PTSD might have the above behavior along with the following.

  • Tucked tail
  • Pinned back ears
  • Panting
  • Crouches low to the ground

There are other clues that your dog might have PTSD. In the beginning, it might seem anxiety but once you get to know your dog you’ll pick up on the clues. Dogs with PTSD might cling to you in fear, be lethargic and depressed, be hyperaware of his or her surroundings, or become suddenly aggressive.
Here’s the tough part about adopting a rescue. We don’t usually know what experiences from their previous life might have contributed to their PTSD. We can make some observations from the time they arrive until they leave our shelter, but we don’t keep most of them long enough. I recommend keeping a notebook and jotting down behaviors, how often did they occur, what triggered that behavior, etc. This way you can have a discussion with your vet to determine is it anxiety, PTSD, or both and how to proceed.

A type of behavioral training called systemic desensitization is common for dogs with PTSD. It exposes your dog to whatever it is that brings on his anxiety or fear. If noise is the trigger, your dog will hear the noise very quietly at first and get a treat for good behavior. The noise will slowly get louder and the treats will keep coming, as long as he stays calm. The goal is to get your dog to associate the trigger with treats, not trauma.
Other important parts of PTSD treatment include daily exercise, play sessions, and positive reinforcement training. Training could take weeks or years. It may not cure the PTSD, but it could help your dog live a healthy, happy life, so long as you limit his exposure to the things that trigger a stressful episode.

Even a dog who hasn’t lived through major trauma can still have fears that cause anxiety or aggression. Some of the most common are:

  • Thunder
  • Fireworks
  • Children
  • Men
  • Riding in cars
  • Going downstairs
  • Shadows

Some dogs are naturally fearful. But most act out because of something that did or didn’t happen to them when they were young. It could be living through a storm or just a lack of exposure to people. Just because a dog doesn’t have PTSD doesn’t mean his behaviors aren’t difficult for the owner and potentially dangerous to others.

Thank you to so many of our wonderful adopters who unwittingly adopted a dog with PTSD and stuck with them and loved and trained them into the awesome dogs they are today.

We wish we knew the circumstance of every dog. We don’t but we do know dogs need us as much as we need them.